Hypochondriac (2022)

Hypochrondriac had its world première at SXSW 2022

As its very title implies, Hypochondriac is concerned with symptomatology and its absence, and with pathologies both real and imagined. This preoccupation with therapy is hammered home by a series of sequences involving medical consultations, where a parade of different doctors keeps repeating to protagonist Will (Zach Villa) that his real problem, despite the list of symptoms that he presents to them, is ‘stress’ – and it does indeed seem clear from the start that Will’s condition, though certainly serious, is also largely in his head, more psychosomatic than straightforwardly physiological. Indeed the entirety of writer/director Addison Heimann’s feature debut might be regarded as a moving diagnostic chart of Will and his peculiar affliction. 

Medical personnel repeat to Will the mantra-like line, “You would be shocked at how the mind can affect the body”, in consultants’ offices all curiously displaying the same campily tacky poster of a winking dog sat alongside a champagne bottle. Anthropomorphised canines will indeed prove a recurrent motif in a film that opens with amateur footage of little boy Will (Ian Inigo) in a wolf suit being asked to howl to the camera by his mother (Marlene Forte) – the same mother who, when Will is just 10, will rush him in the middle of the night from their family home to a motel, and try, during a manic episode, to strangle him there with her bare hands. Will has grown up deeply damaged (albeit in denial) by a childhood spent with a deranged mother and an aloof, uncomprehending father (Chris Doubek). 

Now, 18 years later, Will seems to radiate health. He is gainfully employed as a potter for a high-end art outlet, and lives happily with his boyfriend (Devon Graye) – whose name, Luke, resembles the Greek word for ‘wolf. When Will finds his work colleague Sasha (Yumarie Morales) having a panic attack, he steps in and helps her through it with a practised deftness. Yet for all his generous, loving nature, and his familiarity with mental disorder, Will closes himself off emotionally, is extremely guarded about his past, and proves wary of receiving the kind of help from others that he so readily gives them himself. So when, after a decade of silence, Will’s mother resurfaces, so too do his anxieties, sending him into a tailspin of paralysis (both physical and psychological) and paranoia, as his own mental illness, whether hereditary, environmental or both, takes form.

That form is a figure in a wolf suit – an obvious embodiment of Will’s childhood trauma both because Will himself dressed similarly as a boy, and because its lycanthropic nature encapsulates the divided, potentially dangerous selfhood that Will has been trying to disguise all his adult life. Like the titular character from Adam Egypt Mortimer‘s Daniel Isn’t Real (2019), that wolf is our hero’s ‘invisible friend’ and the ultimate manifestation of his illness. Like the similar-looking Frank the Rabbit from Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001), only more predatory, the wolf becomes for Will, as his world disintegrates, a source of apprehension, of companionship – and even of nightmarish erotic fantasy in one improbable sequence that lampoons Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990). That sequence pins down the slippery bipolar tone of Hypochondriac, which turns on a dime from breezy comedy to harrowing horror – and becomes ever more disorientingly hallucinatory as Will slides further into his mental collapse (“based”, according to text seen at the beginning, “on a real breakdown”, suggesting an element of personal catharsis in Heimann’s filmmaking). 

By the end, it is unclear if these wild lupine excursions have had Will harming others besides himself in the real world, and indeed if his increasingly aggressive behaviours have taken place anywhere beyond his dissociative mind. For the final scenes, in keeping with the rest of the film, blur objective and subjective views. “I’m at the edge of something that I can’t just turn back from,” Will had told Luke as his condition was becoming unmanageable and frightening, “and it’s safer for you if you stay away.” Hypochondriac will leave us with Will at that edge, looking out upon the murky, misty world beyond and wondering if it is possible truly to overcome the legacy of one’s own history and to get better. It is an extraordinarily honest portrait of mental illness, here manifested, in all its haunting persistence, as a ghost (or two) that must be accepted, befriended and embraced for being an often unseen part of the bigger picture – not unlike a scared, scarred little boy hidden out of view inside a howling Halloween guise… 

strap: Addison Heimann’s feature debut remoulds the werewolf myth to diagnose a young man’s pathologies, both real and imagined

© Anton Bitel